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The Fifth Child (1988)

by Doris Lessing

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: Ben, the Fifth Child (1)

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2,405766,383 (3.58)175
A self-satisfied couple intent on raising a happy family is shocked by the birth of an abnormal and brutal fifth child.
  1. 60
    We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver (christiguc, humppabeibi, kjuliff)
    christiguc: Both are books that explore the nature vs. nurture question in disturbing situations.

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» See also 175 mentions

English (67)  French (3)  Swedish (2)  Spanish (1)  Norwegian (1)  German (1)  All languages (75)
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
Odd little book I read flying across the U.S. Not really sure what to make of it. Could be a metaphor for how we all have control the beast within or perhaps it is more about how a mother will sacrafice evrything for her children. ( )
  kevinkevbo | Jul 14, 2023 |
Well, well, well wow, I read this in one sitting. Doris Lessing’s style of writing sucked me right in and I had to keep going until the last page. This is indeed a horror story. One that confronts what is considered socially acceptable and the dissolution of the “perfect” family dream. The couple in this story, Harriet and David, often drove me crazy but were such real, flawed humans — I found it an amazing juxtaposition to consider their flaws against Ben’s - asking the question who is truly the inhuman one?? Class is also highlighted within the broader family dynamic and it was interesting to see how heavily the relationships were influenced by it. I loved this tense, nightmare story of motherhood and failed fractured hopes. ( )
  Andy5185 | Jul 9, 2023 |
A terrific, terrifying story--but don't read it while pregnant. ( )
  dele2451 | Mar 5, 2023 |
This was really unsettling. She's such a good author that I kept reading and reading, even though I'm not sure I liked a single character. ( )
  Ermonty | Dec 19, 2022 |
3.5 stars
This book is hard to review, because of the controversial nature of its subject. The subject is a family with many children, the last-born of whom is special needs.
But this setting is in a time before special needs was addressed. So, these poor children just suffered, and educators more or less looked the other way. Special needs students have to adjust to mainstream education, not the other way around, as it should be.
I worked in public schools, primary grades, in special ed, resource. I also worked in the front office, as attendance clerk, and personally observed how the principal would treat special ed kids that came in with their parents, trying to register them, and the principal doing everything she could to send them elsewhere.
Many of the teachers that I worked with were equally prejudiced against having them in their classrooms, mainstreaming. Moreover, in the lunchroom, teachers who had special needs children in their classroom in inclusion, would speak negatively about these students, obviously influencing any future teachers they might have, In a negative way.

I was irritated with these characters, to begin with, because they wanted to have a large family, yet they did not have the resources for it. They wanted this gigantic house, for their large family, but they didn't have the money for it. The husband, David, had a wealthy father, yet he didn't want to ask his father for help. However, all through the book the father is paying for the house, paying extra money for schools, etc.

Harriet has all these kids, and none of them give her any problems with her pregnancy, nor after their births. But with her last pregnancy, with Ben, he is an unusually active fetus, that gives her no rest:
"she went back to Dr brett, for she could not sleep or rest because of the energy of the fetus, which seem to be trying to tear its way out of her stomach.
'Just look at that,' she said as her stomach heaved up, convulsed, subsided. '5 months.'
he made the usual tests, and said, 'it's large for 5 months, but not abnormally so.'
'have you ever had a case like this before?' Harriet sounded sharp, peremptory, and the doctor gave her an annoyed look.
'I've certainly seen energetic babies before,' he said shortly, and when she demanded, 'at 5 months? Like this?' He refused to meet her -- was dishonest, as she felt it. 'I'll give you a sedative,' he said. For her. But she thought of it as something to quiet the baby."
This was before they had tests to show special needs in utero. And it was also before it was thought of as questionable to prescribe sedatives for a pregnant woman. I don't know, is that acceptable now?
Harriet took the sedatives her doctor prescribed, and begged tranquilizers from all her family and friends, as well.

After he is born, Ben is no easier to live with, and now the whole family is affected, including pets. When Ben is just over a year old, he kills their family dog, and shortly thereafter, the family cat. And Ben is uncontrollable, running out the door and into the streets.
"... One day, she ran out a mile or more after him, seeing only that stubby squat little figure going through traffic lights, ignoring cars that hooted and people who screamed warnings at him. She was weeping, panting, half crazed, desperate to get to him before something terrible happened, but she was praying, oh, do run him over, do, yes, please... "

At The age of six, Harriet takes Ben to a child psychiatrist. The psychiatrist can't or won't diagnose special needs for Ben.
"The doctor looked at Ben. Harriet watched them both. The doctor then said, 'all right, Ben, go out again. Your mother will be with you in a minute.'
Ben stood petrified. Again Dr Gilly spoke into her machine, the door opened, and Ben was hauled backwards out of sight, snarling.
'Tell me, Dr Gilly, what did you see?'
Dr Gilly's pose was wary, offended; she was calculating the time left to the end of the interview. She did not answer.
Harriet said, knowing it was no use, but because she wanted it said, heard: 'he's not human, is he?' "

I thoroughly disliked Harriet the characters attitude towards Ben. It was almost as if she blamed Ben for the way he was, when she was the one who brought him into this world, a world that was unfriendly and unaccommodating to his special needs.
Though I have two children, in their 30s now, I have come to have an anti-natalist attitude, because of the unfairness of bringing children into a world where they will probably not be able to live out their natural lives, mostly due to climate change, but also because of the effects of a world gone mad with capitalism.
I hate when parents blame their children, for something that's not their fault, when they are the ones that made the choice to bring them into this world.

The author wrote a sequel to this story, I believe it's called "Ben in the World." I read a couple of reviews, and one caught my attention: the reviewer recommended that those who had read The Fifth Child, and were struck by it, not read the sequel, Because it would totally ruin the experience that they had reading about Ben in The Fifth Child. So, I'm taking that reviewer's recommendation.
I still like this author, a lot. ( )
  burritapal | Oct 23, 2022 |
Showing 1-5 of 67 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (9 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Lessing, DorisAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Blommesteijn, AnkieTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Dudzinski, AndrzejCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Järvenpää, HeidiTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Kierszys, ZofiaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Király, ZsuzsaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Schönfeld, EvaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Harriet and David met each other at an office party neither had particularly wanted to go to, and both knew at once that this was what they had been waiting for.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Wikipedia in English


A self-satisfied couple intent on raising a happy family is shocked by the birth of an abnormal and brutal fifth child.

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Book description
In the unconstrained atmosphere of England in the late 1960s, Harriet and David Lovatt defy the "greedy and selfish" spirit of the times with their version of tradition and normalcy: a large family, all the expected pleasures of a rich and responsible home life, children growing, Harriet tending, David providing. Even as the day's events take a dark turn - an ominous surge in crime, unemployment, unrest - the Lovatts cling to their belief that an obstinacy guarded contentedness will preserve them from the world outside. Until the birth of their fifth child.
Harriet and David are stricken with astonishment at their new infant. Almost gruesome in appearance, insatiably hungry, abnormally strong, demanding and violent, Ben has nothing infant-like about him, nothing innocent or unsullied - nothing normal by society's standards. Harriet and David understand immediately that he will never be accepted in their world. And Harriet finds she cannot love him. David cannot bring himself to touch him. The four older children are quickly afraid of him. Family and friends who once gravitated to the Lovatts' begin to stay away.
Now, in this house, where there had been nothing but kindness, warmth, and comfort, ther is restraint, wariness, and anxiety. Harriet and David are torn - as they would never have believed possible - between their instincts as parents and their shocked reaction to this fierce and unlovable baby. Their vision of the world as a simple and benign place is desperately threatened by the mere existence of one of their own children. AS the novel unfolds in spare and startling scenes, we are drawn deep into the life of the Lovatt family, and are witness to the terrifying confusion of emotion that becomes their daily fare as they cope with Ben - and with their own response to him - through his childhood and adolescence....

But Doris Lessing is giving us, as well, a larger picture. The story of the Lovatts' extraordinary circumstance becomes a vivid reflection of society's unwillingness to confront - and its eventual complicity in its own most brutal aspects.
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Average: (3.58)
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